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Finally, an identity for Norwalk: The Big Coop


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Introducing chickens to a Des Moines suburb seems like introducing abacuses to a Des Moines insurance company. Sort of the opposite of progressive.

If we’re to believe the East Coast press, however, Norwalk has joined a hip new trend with its decision to allow residents to own as many as four chickens. The Washington Post Home section ran a feature in May headlined: “Hot chicks: Legal or not, chickens are the chic new backyard addition.” Last winter, The New York Times decided in its Westchester Weekly section that “Chicken-raising trend takes hold in county.”

Reports about those reports come from Slate.com, which used words such as “bogusity” to suggest that, actually, we’re not to believe the East Coast press. How can that be? Well, it has been a closely held industry secret until this moment, but here goes: Some trend stories are based not so much on large, verifiable numbers of participants, but on the fact that an editor noticed something while driving to work.

Still, I feel compelled to weigh in on this topic because of my rather vast expertise in raising chickens.

It started when we first moved to the country and found ourselves owning an empty building. Nature abhors a vacuum, and Americans aren’t too crazy about leaving space unused, either.

So we decided to raise something. Llamas? Too odd. Ostriches? Too big. Cute little baby chicks? Bingo.

I had some familiarity with poultry-based agriculture dating back to childhood days on my grandmother’s farm. I would accompany her into the dark, spooky henhouse, where evil-eyed chickens poked their heads out of their nest boxes. My brave little grandma would reach in for the eggs, ignoring the violent pecks from her assailants, while I watched. This may be where I developed my fear of sticking my hand underneath large birds.

This egg production approach is probably the kind of chicken farming that a suburbanite would choose, and we did some of that at our place. We kept a few laying hens and sold a few dozen extra-large brown eggs. But the really massive profits come from selling meat, and that’s where farming gets complicated.

It doesn’t start out that way. Ordering baby chicks through the mail is such a simple, efficient process, it almost makes you wish you could get human babies the same way. And then, eight or nine weeks later, they’re gone and life is back to normal. It almost makes you wish … well, never mind.

We built a pen inside our “barn,” installed heat lights and commenced farming. It was fun. Keep the feed and water coming, and the chicks grow at an amazing rate.

Then, when they got big enough, it seemed only natural to let them play outside all day, frolicking in the green grass and sunshine the way animals do in children’s books. Surprisingly, though, real-life chickens have relatively little interest in nature. It wouldn’t make much of a children’s book: “The Chicken Who Didn’t Care About Anything.”

If you want ambition, get yourself a border collie or a young politician. With 150 or so chickens, you can spend 20 minutes persuading them all to go outdoors and then, in the evening, a similar amount of time herding them back inside to safety.

Or maybe they instinctively knew how dangerous the highly touted free-range life really is. As the raccoons and the red-tailed hawks swapped chicken piccata recipes, our flock tended to dwindle.

All things must pass, and eventually it would be time for the remaining chickens to meet their own destiny. We would rise well before dawn and haul them to a meat locker that processed chickens a couple of mornings per week.

It is an example of a time-tested and well-organized process, the transformation of chickens into “chicken.” It is proof that efficient machines and determined workers can accomplish much in a short time. But the wide-eyed new chicken farmer should know that there’s one thing it isn’t:


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